1. Hi Kay Kin. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am one of the 3 founding partners of Bray Leino Splash and since 2011, I am the CEO for the China region. I posted to Shanghai full-time from 2011 to 2022.I relocated back to Singapore and am now overseeing the Shanghai office remotely.

2. How did the posting to Shanghai come about?

We set up the Shanghai office, our first office overseas, in 2006. Back then, Kuok Ming and I would take turns to travel to Shanghai monthly to meet with clients and to develop new business.

By 2010, we felt that the market potential for China was big enough for 1 of the founding partners to move to China full time to grow the business.

Among the 3 partners, my GCE 'O' level Chinese results was the best so it was decided that I should go to China. I am just kidding.

Seriously, I was very excited by the opportunity to relocate to China to grow the business. However, since I would need to uproot my family, it was a decision to be made jointly with my wife and children.

My wife would have to resign from her teaching post and my 2 children (in primary school then) would have to enrol in a new school in a new environment in a different education system.

Fortunately, my wife was also very excited and supportive of the opportunity which made the decision easier. My children were too young to know what’s in store, so we made the decision on their behalf.

3. What were some of the challenges you encountered living and working in China?

Shanghai was already a highly cosmopolitan city in 2011 so we were able to settle down quickly with ease. But there were differences in social behaviour which took some getting used to:

For example, commuters would rush to board a bus or train when it arrives at the station without regard for alighting passengers. You would experience the same behaviour when taking elevators. There's always this jostling between the embarking passengers and alighting passengers.

I had ended up missing my stops a few times, but I learned quickly to jostle with others and push my way out.

Lack of personal space - With a population of 25 million, Shanghai’s public transport would get very crowded especially during peak hours and people will occupy any empty space without regard for personal space. There were times when a person in front of me would stand so close that my nose was literally centimetres from his/her hair. It didn’t help that in wintertime, some people do not have the habit of showering every day.

Traffic rules - Cars do not give way to pedestrians when turning at traffic junctions or at zebra crossings. Coming from Singapore where cars have to give way to pedestrians, we took it for granted and we had a few close shave of being run over.

Some challenges that I encountered at work:

a. Differences in business ethics

In Singapore, we were taught to do things by the book. We follow processes, play the game by the rules. This business ethic has earned Singaporeans a reputation for being honest and reliable.

In China, the business ethics are more ambiguous. For example, when a company calls for a pitch, many a times they have already decided on who to work with beforehand and they are just going through the motion to obtain proposals to fulfil the quota or to solicit ideas for free.

In the beginning, we would treat all invitation to pitches seriously and would invest significant resources to work on pitches. During the pitch presentation, we would be met with uninterested client. For 1 particular pitch, we were turned down only to find our creatives being adapted when the campaign was launched.

So over time, we became more critical of pitches and would spend time to qualify the lead before we decide to participate in the pitch.

b. Speed is of the essence, sometimes at the expense of quality

The decade from 2010 to 2019 saw significant growth in China economy and high pace of change in the society. Speed becomes an important factor for companies to survive.

Take recruitment for example. Before Covid, the job market was very competitive for employers. There was a shortage of staff in the digital marketing industry and good candidates were hard to come by and were snapped up quickly.

Our recruitment process used to be very thorough. For an opening, we would interview at least 2 to 3 candidates and depending on seniority, we would have 2 rounds of interviews. As such, the recruitment process could take several weeks before an offer was made.

It didn’t help when candidates would fail to show up for the interview without any notification and we had to source for more candidates to interview.

By the time we made an offer, the candidate had already accepted an offer from other companies.

We had to speed up our recruitment process. Instead of interviewing several candidates and then reviewing them together, we would evaluate each candidate after the interview and would made an offer to qualified candidates within a day or 2.

For candidates requiring a second round of interview, we would decide on the spot and conduct the interview right after the 1st one. So rather than trying to find the 'perfect' candidate, we would hire a qualified candidate and evaluate their performance during the probation period.

We would quickly let staff go if he/she was not performing.

4. What advice do you have for someone who might be looking to move to China for work?

First and foremost, for those who have the opportunity to work overseas, I strongly encourage them to take up the opportunity. The exposure to a foreign culture will broaden one's horizon. In today's global economy, the multicultural experience will be highly valuable.

Here is some advice for those looking to move to China for work:

a. Beware of your prejudice

I have encountered some Singaporeans (who have not been to China) who think that China is a backward country. It was perhaps so in the early 2000s when China just opened up. But since then, China has caught up or even surpassed developed countries in certain areas.

The danger of such prejudice is that you will have a mindset of being superior and start to impose your culture and values on the Chinese.

b. Adopt an open mind and be humble

Try to understand why things are the way they are and adapt your behaviour.

For example, Shanghai traffic law did not clearly state that vehicle needs to give way to pedestrians at traffic junction crossings. Hence, if you insist on your right of way as a pedestrian, you could end up with tragic consequences.

There are also many areas where we can learn from the Chinese - the proliferation of e-commerce, adoption of electronic payment, advancement of electric vehicles and sustainable energy, etc are all initiatives undertaken by both the government and private sector towards a common purpose.

c. Learn the language

While it is possible to get by with English in Tier 1 cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, knowing Chinese will put you in tune with the local culture and facilitate your business dealings. To the Chinese people, we are showing our sincerity when we put in effort to learn Chinese and communicate in Chinese. Don't be afraid to converse in Chinese even if it is not perfect. With enough practice, your Chinese will improve overtime.

d. Be culturally sensitive and politically correct

Chinese are nationalistic and proud of their culture. There are a few areas that will stroke the fire of the Chinese people so one should be aware of those hot buttons. For example, the poorly conceived D&G ad in 2018 depicting a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks sparked public outrage and call for the ban of D&G in China.

Similarly, it will be a bad idea to advocate for Taiwan independence in front of your client.

e. Establish business relationships

No advice on working in China will be complete without mentioning ‘Guanxi’ - a social network of mutually beneficial relationships.

‘Guanxi’ is an important factor in opening doors to new business, and maximising chance of success in business dealings. It is best encapsulated by the axiom “it's not what you know, but who you know.”

In Singapore, we tend to separate business relationships and personal relationships.

In China, such relationships are almost never established through formal business meetings but must also include spending time to get to know each other in more personal settings.

If you are in sales, or business development, it will be critical to start building your network and connections as it is a long-term process.